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Savage and devastating, ‘Roadkill’ upends Greek tragedy

Mercy Ojelade 'Roadkill.'

Mercy Ojelade in "Roadkill."

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When: Through May 26

Where: Meet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand

Tickets: Sold out

Info: (312) 595-5600;

Run time: About 2 hours, with no intermission

Updated: June 16, 2013 6:24AM

The horrors to come were only compounded by the absolute beauty of the sun and sky on Tuesday afternoon as a van drove 18 people from Navy Pier to a dimly lit, nondescript little second floor apartment in Bucktown.

Spoiler alert for those lucky enough to have tickets: Unquestionably it was one of the two passengers who boarded the van midway through the ride that added to the beauty: Mary (the altogether astonishing Mercy Ojelade, an actress of astounding gifts). A wide-eyed, wildly curious teenage girl in an immaculate white frock, she has a luminous face and personality, and a spirit of innocence, exuberance and expectation that seem unstoppable.

Mary has just arrived in America from Nigeria, and is now in the care of a sexy older chaperone, Martha (the exceptional Adura Onashile), who she calls “Auntie.” The fashionably dressed woman only gently chides her charge when she asks too many questions of the strangers on the van.

Mary is a human sacrifice of global trafficking, and is being led to the slaughter — a metaphorical one, though given the horrifyingly suggestive desecration to which she is subjected over the next hour, a literal death might be better. For all intents and purposes she has been condemned to Hell.

The ancient Greeks saw theater as a form of catharsis — “the purification and purging of such emotions as pity and fear, with the ultimate result being renewal and restoration.” Too often that sense of the extreme is generated in the most artificial ways. But as you watch “Roadkill,” the harrowing Scottish-bred show being presented here by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater — a work brilliantly conceived and directed by Cora Bissett, with a chillingly apt text by Stef Smith — you feel as dirty, assaulted, psychologically battered and helpless as Mary. And it takes a very long time after leaving the apartment before you are “restored.”

Mary’s deflowering is enacted almost immediately — not by means of fake humping, but by absence of the victim, underscored with terrifying sound, imagistic video and the compliance of your imagination. And so it goes for much of the hour as Mary is used like meat and left to curl up into a fetal position in her small bedroom.

The “audience” is only briefly ushered from TV room to kitchen (site of a cocaine party), to a bondage room where things go amok. Voyeuristic? Surprisingly not. But devastating.

John Kazak is so contemptible as the impossibly slimy pimp with the Eastern European accent who runs the operation that you might just want to attack him. But then he does a complete reversal as a nervous married man who wants to be punished by Mary (rather than to punish her), and is scared off by pedophile charges when he threatens to expose the operation.

When Jeremy Earl (a handsome real-life police officer with film and TV credits) arrives, you might just want to hug him. But there can be no easily happy ending for “Roadkill,” even if there is escape. This is a Greek tragedy for our time.

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